Monday, February 18, 2013

Theory vs. Practice

Many eons ago when I was in college, I studied all kinds of feminist theory.  My senior thesis was on race and gender in two pieces of Civil Rights Era literature.  I marched in Take Back the Night rallies and went to lectures where the representation of women in media was debated.  I was -- and still am -- a feminist.

So imagine my shock when, on our first writing job that ever went into production (that'd be the not-so-great CROCODILE) I was sitting in on casting and saw some huge potbellied guy glance at an actress' headshot after she left the room.  "Looks like she had a few pints of Haagen Dazs since this photo was taken."  I was too taken aback to say anything, too unsure of my position in the production hierarchy to point out that this asshole could use a salad or two. 

Do actresses going up for ingenue roles have to contend with unrealistic body image demands?  Unfortunately, the answer is yes.  Let me put it this way: in most of the country, I'd probably be considered a thin person.  Well, I've put on some weight recently, but I digress.  In Hollywood, even at my most slender?  No way.  When I'm sitting in on auditions and actresses come in, I swear that their waists are the same circumference as my thigh.

I'm not going to lie: it's not easy for actresses.  Do you have body image issues (like me and probably every other woman out there?)  Work on them, because acting isn't going to make them easier.  Actresses' bodies and looks are judged critically by producers and directors.  Yes, male actors are judged too, but I think the bar is higher for women.  The ideal female cinematic body type today -- large breasts, slim hips, slim thighs -- doesn't occur naturally very often.  Sorry to burst your bubble, guys.  Generally we lose weight up top first.  There have been whole books written about how the ideal female body type has changed through the years so I won't try to gloss over it here, but flip through any art history book and you'll get the gist pretty fast.

Granted, there's a certain amount where an actors' "look" is always going to play into casting decisions for legitimate reasons: if you're casting a family, for example, you have to make sure the kids and parents resemble each other.  But there's an intangible element that comes into play that has always made me uncomfortable.  There's no other way to put it than to say that a producer's personal taste -- what he or she considers attractive -- plays a role.  I've seen good actresses rejected because their "ears looked weird" or their "eyes were too far apart."  Sometimes you can advocate for an actress you love, but usually it's like banging against a brick wall.  If one of the people with a say in casting doesn't think the actress is sexy enough, game over.  (It's not just male producers who are guilty of this, by the way.)

Wait a minute, you may be thinking.  If this bothers you, why not write characters who don't fall into the traditional body types?  Describe them as looking different -- problem solved!  Sadly, this tends to only work if the character's "look" has something to do with the story.  They have to feel bad about being chubby and work to get over it, for example, or be a social reject and therefore be "different looking."  If you read the script for JACOB'S LADDER, for example, the character of Jezzie is described as "a beefy woman, juicy and sensual."  Elizabeth Pena is a fantastic actress and I'd describe her as many things, but "beefy" is not one of them. 

I'll point out one exception to what I said above: shows and movies where the main character is the driving force.  Kevin James on THE KING OF QUEENS is a dumpy guy with a hot wife.  Chubby guy with a hot wife or girlfriend is something we're very used to seeing -- as is an old guy with a young, hot girl (though I still remember the shock that ran right through my bones during ENTRAPMENT when Catherine Zeta-Jones declared to Sean Connery "You've got me!"  Young Sean Connery is one thing, but old, wrinkly Sean Connery?  I could not compute.)

But what do most of us do when we see one of these fictional pairings of a beautiful woman and a not-so-great looking guy?  Shrug and say "that's the movies."  In contrast, look at the strong reaction that Lena Dunham is getting for GIRLS.  You'd think she was selling state secrets by appearing nude with a less-than-perfect body.  I'm a fan of the show, and one of the things I find interesting is how Dunham's nudity forces me to look at my own assumptions about body types.  I catch myself thinking "Could Hannah really hook up with Patrick Wilson's character?  Why's she playing ping pong topless?"  I've internalized media ideals about what kind of bodies "deserve" sexual attention or are "okay" to be put on display. 

What's my conclusion?  Sadly, none of this is going to change anytime soon.  If you're thinking of becoming an actress, know that looking at your body objectively is part of the job.  When you get work, ignore the imdb message boards, because there will be idiots talking about your body in both good and bad terms -- and it's the bad comments you'll remember.  Those of you who are actresses, I admire your strength: I honestly couldn't do what you do.  But as more women get into positions of power and can make casting decisions, let's make an effort to show different types of bodies.  We're not all cut from the same mold.

Thanks for reading,

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